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When breast cancer strikes young

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When breast cancer strikes young

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April 3, 2009

"I'm too young to worry about breast cancer" is the most common myth about the deadly disease and one about which Stephanie Burwell is spreading the word.

An assistant professor of child and family development in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, Burwell has conducted several studies looking at the impact breast cancer has on young women and their families. According to past research, young women (those 50 and younger) comprise roughly one-third of all breast cancer cases in the U.S.

"Younger women often face more challenges after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer for several reasons," Burwell said. "They tend to have more aggressive forms of cancer, which require more aggressive forms of treatment, and these treatments have major side effects that can impair their day-to-day function and quality of life."

As a post-doctoral fellow at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Burwell sought to learn about the quality of life for young women battling the disease. There, she shadowed an oncologist and saw first-hand the impact that breast cancer has on patients' and their families' lives.

The study was conducted over three years to see how certain issues that cancer patients dealt with, like depression and sexual dysfunction, change over time for young women. It found that both depression and sexual dysfunction decreased over the course of three years compared to older women, who continue to face these circumstances for up to a decade.

"The biggest challenge for young females dealing with breast cancer is ultimately the danger of having a life-threatening illness," said Burwell. "But what a lot of people don't realize is the increase in emotional issues like depression and sexual dysfunction that many aren't dealing with at this magnitude at their young age until their diagnosis."

Many older women suffer with some form of sexual dysfunction and depression throughout their lives, but younger women don't have these experiences and so are more affected when it happens during treatment.

"Understudied and overlooked" defines the demographic that Burwell serves. Both young and minority women aren't often studied in oncology research, and thus many resources don't exist to serve these demographics.

Burwell is beginning a two-year study funded by Merck Pharmaceutical that looks at breast and cervical cancer knowledge and screening practices among rural black women in Georgia.

"Our goal is to look at cancers that affect minority women, and to develop cancer prevention interventions that will have a public impact," she said.

Overall, minority women tend to have higher mortality rates and die more quickly-most likely because they are diagnosed at later stages of cancer.

"We're really excited about being able to gain a better understanding about African Americans' beliefs about breast and cervical cancer and screening. If we understand this then we can develop relevant prevention tools for the ‘understudied and overlooked' and potentially reduce the number of cancer fatalities in the state of Georgia," she said.

Burwell encourages her students and other faculty and staff to take advantage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

"Faculty and staff have enormous power to positively affect change," she said. "If each faculty and staff member wore a pink ribbon, it would challenge all that see it to consciously think about what they're individually doing to detect breast cancer."